Interning at the National Museum of American History

This summer, I completed my internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) in the Division of Home and Community Life (HCL). HCL is the largest division in the museum, responsible for the care, research, and development of collections that illustrate the daily lives of Americans since the country’s founding.[1] As such, curators in the division research a variety of topics, such as home furnishings, domestic production, patterns of migration and immigration, and the development of leisure time.[2]

As a curatorial intern at NMAH, my experience involved several components. I worked on two projects this summer; the first involved conducting archival research for an exhibit my supervisor is guest curating at a smaller history museum. This research was done as part of collaborative team—I worked with a fellow public history graduate student from California, and an American Studies graduate student from New York. The three of us approached our work in different ways, yet we worked extremely well together. The second project (which I worked on independently) involved the accessioning and cataloging of a new collection which documented the life of an African American family that moved to the Montana Territory after Emancipation. As someone who has been interested in collections and collections management, this was an invaluable experience, which I will explore in more detail in future posts.

The second component of my internship involved learning about the both the museum and the Smithsonian as institutional entities, as well as their commitment to research. I attended a variety of meetings: meetings of the HCL curators, collections meetings concerning “born digital” collections, planning meetings for upcoming public events, and a teach-in centered on making the Smithsonian more accessible to visitors with a variety of physical and emotional needs. I also attended the museum’s monthly staff meeting, in which curators from NMAH, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) discussed the ways in which language can be used to communicate powerful and complicated ideas in a more purposeful and inclusive manner. On Tuesday afternoons, I attended the weekly Colloquium, in which Smithsonian fellows shared their research in process, covering a wide array of topics, from art history, to latent narratives in collections, to the history of human modeling for computer graphics.

My supervisor introduced a third component to my internship—visiting other museums to examine and analyze museum practice in other settings. We visited NMAI, the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It was an interesting experience to visit these other museums while simultaneously wearing the hats of “everyday visitor” and “graduate student figuring out how these sites function”. On these excursions, we were able to take mini deep-dives into the different exhibits, learning the politics behind how an object gets included (or excluded), and just discussing if and how curation for a history museum is similar and different from curation for an art museum.

Currently, the cultural and civic relevance of museums is rightly under critical scrutiny. Knowing and understanding this heightened my awareness not just of the spaces I inhabited throughout my internship, but also of the objects being collected (or not). In my future posts, I am interested in exploring the history of NMAH and how it is related to the nature of its collections.


[1] Office of Fellowships and Internships, Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study, 2016. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. 37.

[2] Ibid.

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